The Debate Should be Over the Nature of Wine

For months, maybe even years now, there has been a ferocious – and increasingly boring – debate regarding the tenets and virtues of natural wine.  And it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone not living under a rock in our highly partisan political times that even a discussion over natural wine becomes polarized within a half glass of bubbly at a dinner party or a few keystrokes on Twitter. There in increasing amount of dirt throwing and downright nasty attacks coming from all sides of the natural wine discussion, but like most things that I attempt to understand, I think I have finally boiled down why I believe naturally made wines deserve our respect and attention.*

All wine, no matter where or how it’s made is a result.  It’s a result of climate, soil, weather, aspect, winemaking, manipulation and the overall potential inherit within all of these contributing factors.  Those who attempt to limit manipulation as much as possible, while still producing a sound, enjoyable and marketable wine fall into the natural wine camp.  Obviously there are varying degrees of manipulation.  And within these varying degrees such as the use of oak, sulphur, sugar, acid, etc…, lies the argument over how we can all define a natural wine.  Well, the secret is out – you cannot define natural wine.  The argument comes down to manipulation and a wine that is manipulated the least is likely to be understood as the most natural, but even the most natural wines are guided by the human hand.  If they weren’t, we would all be engaged in the natural vinegar debate while sipping Scotch.

While we all argue about the merits of natural winemaking (again, a loaded term), perhaps we should focus more on why these wines are important to those of us who are willing to enjoy them on a regular basis.  And perhaps while we enjoy them with each other, we can also gather more wine drinkers into our flock with this pitch.  Those wines that are manipulated the least represent a sense of physical, mental and mystic place like almost no other food or beverage in the marketplace or cupboard.  Sure, a high-octane Napa Valley-floor Cabernet Sauvignon that has undergone extended skin contact and are guided by designers yeasts, cryo-extraction, micro-oxygenation and 200% new oak treatment taste different than a similar wine produced in Argentina, Bordeaux and Australia.  However, that wine would taste nothing like a wine from the same regions that didn’t undergo those heavy-handed manipulations.  Instead they are packed with flavor, flavor, flavor.  They are the Barry Bonds of the wine world, while those less manipulated are Hank Aaron.

And I firmly believe (and stake much of my business) on understanding and explaining that fundamental distinction to those who are willing to listen.  Why?  Because wines that are “natural” or less-manipulated represent something a realness that we are quickly losing in the rest of our lives.  Artsy is replacing visits to museums, E-readers replacing magazines and newspapers, “natural” flavors being chosen over real fruit and vegetables and so forth and so on.  In a world that is rapidly more efficient and guided by the bottom line, a connection to real, tangible, heavy and soulful existential enjoyment is fading away.  And many of us aren’t even noticing that it’s happening.

I have become a runner.  I love to run long distances, often in the woods and rolling hills of New Jersey.  The attraction to pushing myself over an extended amount of natural terrain is primal in nature.  It’s real.  The first time I ran in the woods was the last time I ran on a treadmill.  Real wine isn’t necessarily natural, it’s nature.  It’s a connection to its roots, soil, culture and most importantly – it’s a firm attachment to a particular amount of potential in space and time that cannot be recreated again.  Vintages, vineyard plots, clones, weather and climates all vary and can be wildly inconsistent.  And that should be embraced.  What shouldn’t be embraced is our steady march towards a future that is becoming increasingly uniform and plastic – and especially not wines that are more science than nature.  Something very important is lost when wines are crafted for a critic’s palate and is over-manipulated to the point of losing the potential once realized in the vineyard.  These wines lose their nature.  And frankly, they almost cease to become anything more than wine-like products.  And I would rather have a more naturally made wine, with all of its possible flaws, than a wine-like product any day of the week.  Our lives are already full of “-like products” and with its potential to tell a story that so many other daily indulgences cannot, wine shouldn’t share the same fate.

*Shill alert:  Yes, I work for a distributor that has a significant number of naturally made wines in its portfolio.  And I am certain that this little unedited and scrappy editorial will not add a penny to my income at David Bowler Wine.  And if it does, perhaps I will hire an editor.  And yes, like many Frankenwines, I think Barry Bonds is a fraud.